The man who wasn't there in Arizona CAMPAIGN 1996

February 26, 1996|By Jack W.Germond & Jules Witcover

PHOENIX -- If Bob Dole is determined to bounce back from his defeat in New Hampshire, he showed a strange way of proving it the other night. His absence from the only candidate debate before tomorrow's Arizona primary caused more discussion here most of it negative -- than anything said by his participating opponents.

Because Mr. Dole chose instead to be in Colorado, whose primary is not until March 5, state Republican Party chair Dodie Londen said it was ''pretty obvious'' he was snubbing Arizona. ''If he had been at a caucus or something, that would have been different,'' she said.

The candidate forum without the senator was essentially a retread of the positions and favorite sound bites that have been heard several times now, so in one sense Mr. Dole didn't miss anything. At the same time, without him there didn't seem to be any gaping hole in the affair -- itself an unhelpful commentary on his appeal.

The debating candidates -- Pat Buchanan, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes and Bob Dornan -- didn't even bother to take advantage of Mr. Dole's absence by attacking him. It seemed most of the time that he was irrelevant.

Mr. Buchanan, however, was quick to say afterward that Senator Dole's failure to appear ''hurts him, because what it says

to the people of Arizona is that he doesn't care enough about their debate to come. He's going to try to win it with attack ads. He's afraid to debate [us].''

Edith Richardson, state chairman for Senator Dole, contended that his schedule had been set and couldn't be changed. To that, Mr. Buchanan shot back: ''Nonsense. If he can't change decisions in a campaign, he has been in Washington too long. This is the great debate in Arizona in the nation's second great primary. He should have been here. I think he ducked the debate because he did not do well in the New Hampshire debate, and he doesn't like the idea of debates. You know, they're very cordial and collegial up there in the Senate. Here it gets a little bit rough at times.''

Plenty of history should have reminded Mr. Dole that a presidential candidate snubs a state at his peril. In Oregon 32 years ago, candidate Barry Goldwater decided to skip that state's primary. Nelson Rockefeller moved into the vacuum with the slogan, ''He cared enough to come,'' and won.

In New Hampshire in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson skipped personal campaigning for the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire, settling for an absentee, write-in candidacy. He was embarrassed by Sen. Gene McCarthy with a near-miss that soon forced Johnson to abandon his re-election plans.

Bush on both ends

In Iowa in 1980, Ronald Reagan chose to bypass a debate among the Republican candidates on the final weekend before the precinct caucuses there and found himself a loser to George Bush. And in 1992, Mr. Bush himself paid for standing aloof from New Hampshire, the state that in 1988 had put him on the road to the White House by making him its primary winner over Senator Dole.

Mr. Bush sent his vice president, Dan Quayle, to tell the locals that his boss cared about them in the recession they were enduring, but by the time he showed up himself, they spanked him by giving Mr. Buchanan 37 percent of their vote.

Finally, earlier this month, Phil Gramm decided not to campaign the final weekend of the Louisiana caucuses. He admitted after he lost to Mr. Buchanan that he had miscalculated.

Jane Lynch, executive director of the Arizona Republican Party, said after the debate here: ''Sen. Dole missed a real opportunity'' because of the large audience and statewide television and radio coverage. Bernice Roberts, the Maricopa County (Phoenix) party chairman, agreed. ''It's strange and we're all puzzled,'' she said. ''I think he had a better chance of winning Arizona than he thought.''

Had Mr. Dole totally written off the state, it would have been one thing. But he arrived the night after the debate for a last weekend of campaigning, starting in the less-populated south. That too is strange, in that Arizona will award all 39 of its delegates to the top statewide vote-getter on a winner-take-all basis.

Arizona once was regarded as Gramm country, backed by all the state party bigwigs. But Senator Gramm is out and Messrs. Buchanan and Forbes, scrambling to win his old supporters, see a vacuum to be filled. Senator Dole apparently doesn't -- or can't quite make up his mind.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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